Pedagogy and learner confidence

11194506586_58db9e3386During the week I had a conversation with an employer who told me that his trainee had the practical ability to become an electrician but not the self-confidence. I put forward the suggestion that the training of adult trainees was as much a process of developing confidence as it was one of learning content, and he replied that it was the same with apprentices, in the final stage of their apprenticeship, though perhaps for different reasons. This suggested to me that vocational pedagogy, both on-site and in the classroom, has to be one that enhances the learners’ self-esteem.

Brandes & Ginnes , (1996, p.3) note right at the very start of their book that student-centred learning ‘can have a tremendously powerful impact on self-esteem and mitigate the damage being done elsewhere’.

Wilkinson and Pickett, in The Spirit Level (2010, p.113) relate a number of cases where perceived social inequality has a negative outcome on educational performance. They relate how in one study, black students failed worse in the exact same assessment when they were told the test was one of ability as they did when they were told that the test wan’t one of ability. Similarly, students  in India were found to perform worse when assessed in the presence of ‘higher’ caste peers (p.113).  In one remarkable tale a teacher told her class that she’d read an article telling her that blue-eyed students were more intelligent and more likely to succeed than brown-eyed students. The consequence of this was that the school performance of the blue-eyed pupils improved. After a few days she confessed to the class that she’d made a mistake and that she’d got her facts the wrong way around. Instead it was the brown-eyed students who had superior intelligence:  the roles and and performance ‘rapidly reversed’.

In many ways one doesn’t really need to be an educational genius to  know that learners perform less well when their self-esteem is low. The risk is, like Orwell’s drinker, that low self-esteem begets a lack of confidence that begets poor performance which begets low self-esteem, which begets  a lack of confidence…ad infinitum.

Initially I thought this would be the end of this post but I googled “self-esteem” and “adult learners” and got the really helpful briefing sheet by Kathryn James and Christine Nightingale and published by  NIACE.

I think I’d already made the connection between pedagogy, self-esteem and confidence but I gained confidence by seeing it written down in this paper, (2005, p.9).

This way of linking self-esteem and confidence to adult learning is closely associated with quality standards in learning, because what promotes positive self-esteem and confidence in adult education is good teaching and learning. It is about adopting learner-centred approaches, about providing appropriate support and about respecting and valuing learners.

Which leaves me with the question as to whether a subject-centred pedagogy is designed to artificially cap self-esteem. That’s not to suggest a mass conspiracy of traditionally minded teachers to suppress the self-esteem of their learners, but that a subject-centred form of pedagogy always struggles to raise self-esteem because it is not designed for that purpose.


confidence, by Maria Malidaki, taken on 3 December 2013, uploaded to Flickr as m.thunderkit,, accessed 02 March 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Brandes, D. & Ginnis, P. (1991) A Guide to Student-Centred Learning, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

James, K. and Nightingale, C. (2005) Self-esteem, confidence and adult learning, Briefing Sheet, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (England and Wales),, accessed 01 March 2014

Orwell, G. (2000) ‘Politics and the English Language’ in Essays, London, Penguin in association with Martin Secker & Warburg, pp.348-359

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, London, Penguin


vocational pedagogy in the electrical SVQ apprenticeship